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Sexuality and community in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Michael Brain (a1)

This article suggests that the narrative of human community Bonhoeffer described in Sanctorum Communio, following the categories of creation, fall and redemption, provides the framework for understanding the various aspects of human sexuality found in Creation and Fall and Ethics. A comparative study of these texts reveals that marriage and sexuality in Bonhoeffer encapsulates the human drive towards community, preserved from the fall for redemption in Christ. Understanding human sexuality within the structure of this narrative allows for a new way of appropriating and evaluating Bonhoeffer's theological anthropology for contemporary ethical reflection in the Christian community.

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1 Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘A Query to Daniel Sullivan: Bonhoeffer on Sexuality’, Continuum 4/3 (1966), p. 457.

2 Reynolds, Terrence, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Encouragement of Human Love: A Radical Shift in his Later Theology’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 41/3–4 (1987), pp. 67–8.

3 While there is a shift in tone and more nuance after the publication of Discipleship, there is substantial continuity between the early and later works. For contemporary arguments for Bonhoeffer's consistency, see Stephen Plant, Bonhoeffer (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 94–6, 104–5; DeJonge, Michael, Bonhoeffer's Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 1314, 143–6.

4 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, vol. 1 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Krauss, Reinhard and Lukens, Nancy, ed. Green, Clifford J. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), pp. 32–3.

5 Ibid., p. 42.

6 Floyd, Wayne Whitson Jr., Theology and the Dialectics of Otherness: On Reading Bonhoeffer and Adorno (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), pp. 89, 24–5.

7 Ibid., pp. 27–8.

8 Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, p. 49.

9 Ibid., pp. 50–1.

10 Ibid., p. 54.

11 Ibid.

12 Thus, Bonhoeffer presented a mediating position between transcendental idealism and a philosophy of dialogue. Marsh, Charles, ‘The Overabundant Self and the Transcendental Tradition: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Self-Reflective Subject’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60/4 (1992), p. 662.

13 Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, pp. 58–64.

14 Ibid., p. 88.

15 Ibid., p. 107.

16 Ibid., p. 141.

17 Ibid., pp. 142–4.

18 Ibid., pp. 143–4.

19 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, vol. 3 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Bax, Douglas Stephen, ed. de Gruchy, John W. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), p. 25.

20 Ibid., p. 22.

21 Ibid., p. 63.

22 Ibid., p. 64.

23 Ibid., pp. 98–9.

24 Ibid., p. 100.

25 Green, Clifford J., Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 196 .

26 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, pp. 100–1.

27 Ibid., p. 101.

28 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. Fuller, R. H. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 131–3.

29 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, pp. 124–5.

30 Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, p. 108.

31 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, pp. 122–3; cf. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics, vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Krauss, Reinhard, West, Charles C., and Scott, Douglas W., ed. Green, Clifford J. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), pp. 303–5.

32 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, pp. 99–100.

33 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 303.

34 Tietz, Christiane, ‘The Mysteries of Knowledge, Sin, and Shame’, in Nielsen, Kirsten Busch et al. (eds), Mysteries in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Copenhagen Bonhoeffer Symposium (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 30–2.

35 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, pp. 125–6; Ballor, Jordan J., ‘Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer's Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology’, Journal of Religion 86/1 (2006), pp. 910.

36 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison, vol. 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Best, Isabel, Dahill, Lisa E., Krauss, Reinhard and Lukens, Nancy, ed. de Gruchy, John W. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), p. 83.

37 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p. 125.

38 Ibid., p. 140.

39 Ibid., p. 139.

40 Luther, Martin, ‘A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage (1519)’, in Christian in Society I, vol. 44 of Luther's Works, American edn, ed. Atkinson, James (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), p. 9 ; Luther, Martin, ‘The Estate of Marriage (1522)’, in Christian in Society II, vol. 45 of Luther's Works, American edn, ed. Brandt, Walther I. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962), pp. 45–6.

41 Bethge, Eberhard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary, trans. Mosbacher, Eric et al. (London: Collins, 1970), p. 161.

42 Brunner, Emil, The Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics, trans. Wyon, Olive (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1936), p. 210.

43 Ibid., p. 220.

44 Barth and Bonhoeffer both objected to Brunner's use of the concept of orders, on the grounds that they too easily resembled a type of natural law that rested on a universally accessible rationality, distinct from the revelation of God. However, Bonhoeffer did not completely reject every concept of orders and opted to revise the concept in order to maintain the visibility of Christian ethics. Ballor, ‘Christ in Creation’, pp. 4, 21; Pangritz, Andreas, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Barbara, and Rumscheidt, Martin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 40–4.

45 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 68–70, 389.

46 Ibid., p. 174; Harvey, Barry, ‘Preserving the World for Christ: Toward a Theological Engagement with the “Secular”’, Scottish Journal of Theology 61/1 (2008), pp. 71–2.

47 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 174.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., p. 204.

50 Ibid., p. 210.

51 Isabel Heyward, Carter, The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 12, 8–9, 217–18.

52 Tietz, Christiane, ‘The Role of Jesus Christ for Christian Theology’, in Mawson, Michael and Ziegler, Philip G. (eds), Christ, Church, and World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer's Theology and Ethics (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), p. 23.

53 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 188.

54 Ibid., p. 206.

55 Ibid., p. 211.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
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